Ulli Beier was a German, the husband of the popular late Yeye Osun, Susan Wenger. Susan Wenger was the first wife of Ulli Beier. The history of the Yoruba people is not complete without the name Ulli Beier, especially when we are discussing literacy, and exposure of the people and their language. He was very popular in Nigeria in the 50’s through the 70’s. History says his second wife, Georgina, had heard so much about him, even when she was in Zaria, and was determined to see the Nigerian called Ulli Beier, whenever she travels down south. Ulli Beier, because of his belief in the Yoruba people and culture, was referred as the German born Nigerian.
In fact, he left Nigeria for Papua New Guinea in 1966 and returned in 1970. He visited Ede at his return, and ran into a garrison; he had to drive to Ibadan with a burst tyre. On getting to Wole Soyinka’s house, Soyinka was scared and wondered what the world would have said if Ulli Beier had died at Ede. Laide, Soyinka’s wife, was quick to respond that: if Ulli had died, then, he knew ahead of time that his time had come, and he decided to come home to die.
Over the question of the true identity of Ulli Beier, he was a European who was proud of his European heritage. He was born in Glowitz, Germany in 1922. His father was a medical doctor cum musician. Ulli was exposed early enough to the chamber performances. Ulli ultimately developed his love for arts from his father. His family later moved to Palestine as refugees because of the tyranny of Hitler in Germany at the time. He later moved to London where he studied phonetics and later became a lecturer of phonetics. He saw an advert of the University College London, in Ibadan, Nigeria. UCL, Ibadan, was just two years old at the time and was seeking for lecturers. Ulli applied and came to Nigeria by chance. He later saw his coming to Nigeria as the hand work of ‘Esu’, the god of crossroads and chance.
In Nigeria, he started as a lecturer of phonetics at the University College Ibadan. He was quick to discover that the people, especially the Yoruba, do not value themselves. They think less of their heritage. Whenever he tried to talk to them about their uniqueness, they were fond of saying ‘we can’t even make pins’. Ulli appreciated the spirituality of these people that they themselves do not value. He later became a lecturer of extra mural studies because he didn’t see reasons why people of a unique culture should be forced to speak like another; which is what phonetics is all about. His new department made him travel a lot and better exposed. He later moved to Ede with his wife, Susan Wenger, they lived there for two years before he moved to Ilobu, and later to Osogbo.
At Osogbo, he started the ‘Black Orpheus’ and ‘Club Mbari’.The great authors, D.O Fagunwa and Amos tutuola were members. He had a good relationship with the most popular travelling theatre then: Duro Ladipo theatre troupe. He was the first to translate traditional oral poetry to English language. Ulli and Gerald Moore came up with the first anthology of modern African poetry in English. More so, his wife, Susan, actively participated in the Osun festival at Osogbo.
Ulli Beier discovered the beauty in the indigenous African tradition and observed that the people did not believe in themselves; his students at Abeokuta couldn’t differentiate between fact and fiction in his Macbeth class. He later carried out the thankless and difficult task of translating indigenous songs, folklore, oral poems and chants into English language. This was really the beginning of African Oral Literature.
Ulli was very familiar with the Yoruba Obas. Timi Laoye of Ede was his first Oba friend, who introduced him to Sango worship, and later initiated him to the Ogboni cult. He was also friends with Olowo, Ooni, Ataoja, Ogoga,Orangun, Ogiyan, amongst others. He attended all Sango ceremonies at Ede, Orangun-Ila, Otan-ayegbaju and other ceremonies like ogiyan ose of Ejigbo. He was also in deep friendship with the priests and priestess of the various cults.
He wrote the ‘imprisonment of Obatala’. In 1954, he organised a conference on Yoruba society, culture and history. This conference led to the birth of the popular ‘Odu’ journal: A pure Yoruba journal where some of the Obas published some poems, articles and songs.
It is fun writing about this man who was European and yet held so dear, the religious rites and the Oba institution of the Yoruba people of Nigeria. He believed in the spirituality of the people, which is deep, unique and rich. We can talk of the African Oral Literature today because Ulli saw it as interesting and took action. He saw a living present with a bright future in the culture of the Yoruba people. The history of the Yoruba people in education and literature can never be complete without the man, Ulli Beier. I am grateful to my Professor, the late Wole Ogundele for been resourceful in my attempt to write about Ulli.
Ulli Beier wore ‘Aso Oke’ more than the owners. He breathed our way of life more than we do. He appreciated the culture that grants extra-ordinary tolerance, because he could view with his deep multicultural eyes. He once told a story of how Chinua Achebe related his early school experience. When his teacher was teaching them about the geography of Britain under the tree, a mad man came around, listened for a while and went to the teacher. The mad man collected the chalk, rub off the board, and taught the students the history of Ogidi (their village), which the students found more exciting. “The teacher allowed it”, Ulli said with interest, because in his own culture, the teacher would have called the police. What a tolerating and compassionate culture the Africans have!
He earned himself names like: Obotunde Ijimere, Sangodare Akanji, and Omidiji Aragbalu.
I was privileged to have met Ulli Beier as a student of the faculty of Arts, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. It was shocking that such a great man was hosted in the small Auditorium Two. If the Ooni of Ife or the legendary Wole Soyinka should come to the University, they would be entertained in the biggest hall for VIPs: the Oduduwa Hall. We shouldn’t forget that Wole Soyinka and other Nigerians we are proud of today, once looked up to this legendary Ulli Beier for their inspiration and confidence. More so, Ulli Beier wined and dined with the Obas that the present Obas refer to as fathers, great fathers and predecessors. Chinua Achebe, Mabel Segun, Wole Soyinka, chritopher Okigbo, J.P Clark were all his students yet he was never granted a national honor.
Who was Ulli Beier to us? Who was he to our children? Who was this European that so much believed in the Yoruba tradition, and was very devoted to it? What we cannot do for ourselves, he did; he granted the culture its popularity. Who is Ulli Beier to you?